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Spinning a Good Yarn by T Davies-Barnard
image from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sasha_kopf/3811949321/in/photostream/
Knitted animals in group symbolising story telling. Image from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sasha_kopf/3811949321/in/photostream/

“… And so the frogs cast off and lived happily ever after.”
Image from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/

When you think of academic writing, you don’t often think of a story in the conventional sense; academese is notorious for being dry and dull. But ‘story’ is a key piece of academic tacit knowledge.

Story: noun
Usual meaning: An account of events told for entertainment.
Academic meaning: A key conclusion/s of research which the reader is brought to through the flow of an academic paper.
Usage examples:
“I think I’ve got a story.”
“The story is coming together but it needs sharpening.”

The concept of story is an acknowledgement that a jumble of results doesn’t necessarily make a great paper. It’s easy to see the IMRAD structure followed by most scientific papers and think that all you need to do is fill in under each heading, and hey presto – paper. Not so. A paper needs results but also should have a punchy key message which the rest of the paper sets up and supports with a logical flow of ideas. The difficulty is that writing a great paper goes against most of the training PhD students have been given.

The concept of story in an academic paper is totally different to traditional essay structure. One of the key differences is balance – an essay is a balanced synthesis, whereas a paper is closer to a sales pitch. For those of you who have never been in sales, sales people deliberately control the conversation and lead the customer to buying the product. For an academic paper, the task is to control the reader’s thought-pathway so that they come to understand and agree with the key message. Though the word ‘control’ makes this sound awful, it’s not so different from the concept of classical style: the writer orients the reader to something in the world, which the reader can see with their own eyes. A paper attempts to lead the reader through the sequence of ideas so that they might come to the same conclusion as the author did. That’s a story.

The best papers draw you in to their narrative like a great story-teller. One of the ways that they do this is by telling a story and not getting distracted from it. That means paring down and building the story around the central logical sequence of ideas. A story needs the right amount of detail, at the right point. Too much or too little and the reader will go off down a mental side-alley. I realize that this is as clear as mud, so I will try to demonstrate using a crass example. Consider the following statement:

A person went down the street.

It’s informative and brief. This is fine, but leaves the reader wondering and potentially sidetracked by the lack of precision. What sort of person? How did they go down the street? What sort of street? The reader feels under-informed. Let’s try again, with more details:

The man in a blue coat skipped down the street with red brick houses on either side.

Lots more detail now, but how is the reader to ascertain what the salient point is? The sentence is longer, cumbersome and provides multiple opportunities for the reader to be derailed and wander off with a detail that may or may not be important to the story. Why is the man in a blue coat? What sort of red brick houses? The original purpose of the sentence, (to lead the reader down the street with the man), has been completely subverted by interesting but unimportant details. Third time lucky:

The man skipped down the street.

Here is a happy medium. Without increasing the word count from the original, the sentence provides two more (of the most salient) pieces of information. It keeps the focus on the person going down the street, with the most unusual element very clear (the skipping) because it isn’t hidden by other information.

So next time you’re writing, try asking yourself: what’s the story, and is this detail essential to it?

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